Obama To Vets: Tough Fights Abroad, At Home

President Obama spoke to the national Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Monday. Republican challenger Mitt Romney speaks to the group Tuesday.

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Mitt Romney speaks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada today, and he's expected to call for a stronger military, as well as no cuts to the defense budget. He's also likely to criticize President Obama's policies on Iran and Syria. Yesterday was President Obama's day at the VFW convention, and NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: President Obama opened his VFW speech by talking about the tragedy in Colorado. He'd been in Aurora the day before, meeting with victims' families and with some of the wounded. At the VFW, he noted that of the 12 who died, four were veterans or active members of the U.S. military.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These young patriots were willing to serve in faraway lands, yet they were taken from us here at home. And yesterday, I conveyed to their families a message on behalf of all Americans: We honor your loved ones. We salute their service.

GONYEA: The veterans seated in front of him added their own applause to the brief tribute. The president last spoke to the VFW in 2009, during his first year in office. He pointed to his commitment back then to end the Iraq war. Today, there are no U.S. forces there. He said Afghanistan remains, quote, "a tough fight," but that a transition is under way there as well. And he reminded the audience that he promised in 2009 to pursue Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Obama also used the speech to issue a warning to Syrian President Assad after the acknowledgment by Syria that it has chemical weapons, and it is considering using them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We will continue to make it clear to Assad and those around him that the world is watching, and that they will be held accountable by the international community and the United States, should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.

GONYEA: The president also spoke of the political battles taking place in Washington. He raised a topic that has a lot of veterans concerned: potential deep cuts to the Pentagon budget. A deficit reduction deal worked out last year, with bipartisan support, would trigger automatic deep cuts at the end of this year, including to the Pentagon, if Congress doesn't come up with alternative cuts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And there are a number of Republicans in Congress who don't want you to know that most of them voted for these cuts. Now they're trying to wriggle out of what they agreed to do. Instead of making tough choices to reduce the deficit, they'd rather protect tax cuts for some of the wealthiest Americans, even if it risks big cuts in our military.

GONYEA: Mr. Obama framed it as he has so many times on the campaign trail, even though this was not an official campaign event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I will stand with our troops every single time.

GONYEA: Politically, veterans are a divided group that tends to favor Republicans. But after the speech, the reviews for the president were mostly very positive. Sixty-four-year-old Vietnam veteran Barry Hirshbein wouldn't discuss who he'll vote for this fall, and he was quick to add that he has serious disagreements with Mr. Obama, including over the withdrawal from Iraq. But here's what he said when I asked how he thinks the president is doing.

BARRY HIRSHBEIN: Putting aside the bigger economy issues and joblessness issues, I have felt all along that he's done very well on veterans issues. And I give him high grades for what he's done with respect to veterans.

GONYEA: In his answer, Hirshbein first mentioned the economy. Interviews with VFW members put that issue as their top concern. They mirror the national mood in that regard. And as such, veterans issues, while still important to them, are a bit down the list.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Reno.

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